Who Cares About Neil Young’s Ultra-High Quality Music Standard?

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Theo Wargo / Getty Images for the Global Citizen Festival

Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, Billy Talbot and Neil Young of Neil Young and Crazy Hourse perform onstage at the Global Citizen Festival In Central Park To End Extreme Poverty - Show at Central Park on September 29, 2012 in New York City.

Neil Young claims he’s going to change the way we listen to digital music by pairing a new iPod-competitive Pono music player (I see “Ponyo” — how about you?) with an audiophile-caliber music download service. The claims are predictably long on sound bites and short on particulars.

What we know so far is this: It’ll offer 192 kHz, 24-bit recordings with “digital-to-analogue conversion technology intended to present songs as they first sound during studio recording sessions.”

(MORE: Pono: Can High-Quality Audio Sell Neil Young’s Portable Music Player?)

192 kHz and 24-bit? That’s way better than 44.1 kHz and 16-bit (basic CD quality), no? Will it be uncompressed as well? Will lossless audiophiles finally have a mainstream, rich-library alternative to sites with limited catalogs like Rhino and Bleep and HD Tracks?

Back in July 2011, I lamented Amazon’s decision to limit its “unlimited” cloud music storage service to compressed audio file formats. FLAC files? Apple lossless audio? No-can-play. Thus “unlimited” only for members of the lossy audio club, i.e. those listening to lower quality versions of songs either ripped from personal music libraries or purchased online. Those of us who’ve fastidiously replicated our compact disc or vinyl music collections in digital form were out of luck.

I disliked but understood Amazon’s decision. Lossy audio occupies dramatically less space than lossless, and portable audio players hold only so many songs. The size of the average iTunes music library is around 3,000 tracks (according to TuneUp Media back in June 2011, anyway). If we say the average five minute MP3 is 5 MB, that’s roughly 15 GB of storage per person, which adds up fast. Amazon’s cloud-based pockets aren’t bottomless, and space on portable players can be dear — who wants to fuss over what to carry or leave behind?

What’s more, most people listening on the go — through earbuds, smartphone speakers, in automobiles, on planes or trains, out for a run on a windy day or in areas with traffic — are hearing music in environments decidedly non-conducive to, shall we say, the connoisseur’s ideal aesthetic. Who cares about audio nuance if what you’re using to listen or the listening environment itself aren’t up to snuff in the first place?

Me, for starters, because even when I’m in one of those compromised situations, I like to know that were I in a great sound space, say at home listening through my high-end monitors (speakers) or a pair of studio-quality headphones, I’d be able to appreciate all the nuance baked in by the musician(s) and whoever engineered the recording. I like the idea of holding in my possession the best version of a song that’s available. If I’m in a pinch, I can compress it any way I like, but if I need to go back to the source, at least there is one, as opposed to something bought through iTunes or Amazon, where you’re stuck with the compressed version, high fidelity playback gear or no.

Sympathy for my position is rare, or at least it has been anecdotally speaking. Most people — family, friends, strangers — claim not to be able to hear the difference, say, between an MP3 encoded at 256kbps and the lossless original. When I push back, I’m accused of being an audio snob. And to be fair, maybe I am (though never in the pretentious sense — I hold nothing against people who don’t care about this as much as I do, nor do I think my audio preferences are “superior” to theirs).

(MORE: Musical DNA: WhoSampled iPhone App Scours Tracks for Borrowed Riffs)

The differences between compressed and uncompressed music can be subtle depending on the compression levels. Working against my desire not to notice: a trained musical ear. I spent years in college-level music programs honing my ear to associate what most people identify as the lyrics to a catchy Rodgers and Hammerstein tune — “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do” — with actual frequencies in the Western music system. When I hear a piece of music, I can tell just by listening what the chord relationships are, say what the chorus from Peter Gabriel’s “Come Talk to Me” has in common with the first two notes of the main title from Star Wars.

But that’s just pitch recognition — a jumping off point. I’ve also spent a lot of time over the years fiddling with audio formats and reproduction equipment, as well as stuff like ABXTester, a double-blind A/B comparison utility that checks your ability to tell the difference between two music samples. It’s great for testing whether you can discern different compression levels. I’ve found that I can reliably tell the difference at or below 256Kbps (the going compression rate on iTunes and Amazon), and that I only start to mix things up at or above 320Kbps (the rate a subscription service like Spotify laudably offers if you enable “high-quality” streaming). I don’t claim to have a “golden ear,” but I do have a discerning one.

Before I blame ear training and throw in the towel, I want to toss this on the fire: How many of you have built up a library of compressed digital tunes, where they’re your only copy of a song or album? You’ve probably spent a bunch of time and money doing so, right? If someone came along claiming your music collection was inferior and that you could have something of far superior quality, but that it’d cost you to get it, you’d probably balk. Is that influencing your opinion? What you’re telling yourself you hear or don’t hear? I think it’s a worthwhile question.

Then again, you can have too much of a good thing, and who’s to say that’s 192 kHz, 24-bit audio? I mean, you look at video advances and VHS to DVD, sure. But DVD to Blu-ray? Blu-ray to whatever’s next, e.g. “Retina” TVs? When is good enough really good enough? When does it become a truly niche, enthusiast-only thing?

Which bring us back to Neil Young’s music service claims: “digital-to-analogue conversion technology intended to present songs as they first sound during studio recording sessions.” Will anyone care (aside from the core audiophile group)? Does anyone really want to reboot their music libraries for what for most may seem less of a distinction, say, than the leap from VHS to DVD? After all, we’re not talking about a service (or a player) that’s going to solve two of the biggest obstacles to appreciating higher quality audio on the go: portable storage space that’s affordable and audio reproduction gear (to say nothing of ambient acoustics).

Besides, isn’t the real debate these days turning to one-off purchases versus subscription services?

How many of you are flirting with the idea of abandoning digital downloads for a streaming service like Spotify, where you can play back music, from a startlingly complete catalog, at near-CD-quality levels already? Where — artists and publishers and streaming providers willing — you could eventually just stream 192 kHz, 24-bit audio files for a flat rate in lieu of buying them?

Speaking as an audiophile, I wish Neil Young the best in all of this, and I’ll be first in line to try it. But unless he has some crazy sonic trick up his sleeve — some thing we’ve overlooked or failed to anticipate — he’s facing a tough sell, at least on the merits of the service’s superior audio quality.

MORE: Can You Hear the Difference Between Lossless and Lossy Audio?

16 comments
ChuckDeMonte
ChuckDeMonte

I see a lot of people on this thread saying they are excited for this and that this is great.  This is something HDtracks has been doing for 5 years now and over the past year they have had amazing releases.  Just this past week alone Prince 1999 in amazing hi-res and Miles Davis Bitches Brew.  They are getting more new artists as well, have some great Rolling Stones titles, Bob Marley and a ton more.  


Check it out at HDtracks.com and they just updated download manager you can get the files in WAV, FLAC, AIFF!!

L.a.Richardson
L.a.Richardson

It seems to me that the mistake he's making is trying to make his proposed music downloads BETTER than CD quality.  I believe this requires some work on the part of record companies, which they are not likely to do if the money isn't there.  I would love higher (than CD) quality music, but I would only be willing to pay so much for it.  I buy a lot of music, and I only listen to MP3s as a last resort.  Mostly, I buy CDs, and rip them to a lossless format (FLAC).  If the album is out of circulation, and/or the price is too high, I'll download MP3s from Google Play, since they offer everything at 320 Kbps quality.  What I would really like to see is CD QUALITY downloads (lossless format) at a reasonable price.    In short, I think the most important distinction is between MP3s and CDs, not CDs and a 192/24 format.    

cfracisco
cfracisco

I saw Neil Young on John Stewart and was excited to hear about the opportunity to listen to music with more depth. I am on board with you, Matt! 

Observer99
Observer99

Forgot: when I see Pon o, I see Pono. When you see apple, do you see pomegranate? Get real.

Observer99
Observer99

I mcare a lot. I don't own any MP3 files, nor would I. Everything is .wav, so converting will be a breeze. And I have a very high end JBl sound system in my vehicle, so I actually do hear the difference. Neil says, when he sees someone walking down the street with earbuds in, he knows they're "listening to crap". He set out to change that, which is a good thing for those of us who don't have tin ears. MP3 is crap. plain and simple. Any attempt to come up with something else should be applauded. not trashed.

EricVanBezooijen
EricVanBezooijen

I care less about this than the "loudness wars" where so much of the music has been mixed at very high, distorted levels; as a result it all sounds horribly distorted. There should be some certification process where recordings are labeled by how loudly they are mixed.

Alf-Einar Trenulltre
Alf-Einar Trenulltre

An average five minute MP3 is NOT 5 MB. A quick cross reference tells me that a 5:42 long track is about 13 mbs running at 320kbps aka. standard quality.

David Parker
David Parker

Funny how you downplay the difference between DVD and Blue-ray quality. You sure don't need to be a "videophile" to see the difference. 

neilfan
neilfan like.author.displayName 1 Like

neil dosen't give a shit what you or i think he does what he thinks and i'm glad he does

yahoo-WOGN6QWVXUJNGWS5CRDLMJ2ZEA
yahoo-WOGN6QWVXUJNGWS5CRDLMJ2ZEA

I think it's great that he's doing this. Still, I think a lot of people don't really know what's involved here. To really appreciate the difference you'd need very expensive speakers, a high quality amplifier and a very high quality digital to analog converter somewhere in the chain. Without all those things I doubt anybody is going to hear a difference. And we already have an audiophile standard anyway: vinyl records.

Rick Heckenlively
Rick Heckenlively

Since Neil is basing this judgement on a lifetime in music, I'm inclined to think he's right. I'd check it out.

Neil amp; Me
Neil amp; Me

As "they" say in the classics, "It's better late than never" and l know l will spend some of my money on it! After seeing Neil's latest film. "Journeys", and listening to the music, the clarity and the enjoyment from that, l say "Bring it on" and let each individual decide whether they want it or not!

Brooks Parsons Jr
Brooks Parsons Jr

I care - and I can tell.  There are a few things that aggravate me about digital music.  The first is the assumption that equalization is best done at the factory, and that pre-sets with inspiring names like "rock", "jazz", and "urban" will make me go "yeah, now THAT'S how rock music should sound", because, hey, we all hear things exactly the same as one another, right!  When you hook up your Iphone or Ipod to a larger system with EQ, you have to undo the I-devices EQ, and no matter what you do, you will never experience what the musicians intended for you to hear.

The second thing that peeves me is way things are now mixed for earbuds.  Earbuds are about the absolute worst way you can listen to music.  It's awful

ChewTheDirt
ChewTheDirt

When Auerbach and Grohl joined Neil Young to knock out “Rockin in the Free World” that sealed the deal on an epic show. Great review here http://www.chewthedirt.com/glo... . Too bad the Foo Fighters are taking a break now...

Omar Zia
Omar Zia

It's OK. Sound preservation needs to be done. The files will be made available. Over the years, storage will become cheeper, players will get smaller and come down in price.  Even if no one buys the players or downloads songs now, Neil is till a hero for rescuing the art form and getting the tracks archived in the highest possible format available. He's giving people an option. Whether people buy into it next year doesn't really matter. Once the service is put together, his work is done. The future will take care of itself.

Yoshi_1
Yoshi_1

Too bad this wasn't happening thirty years ago. It won't go anywhere, now.